Technically ramps are wild leeks, but they don't look or taste like the domesticated leeks you find at the grocery store. You can recognize them in the woods by their wide, tapering leaves, which resemble young tulip foliage or lily-of-the-valley leaves. But take care to distinguish them from such non-edibles: To determine if it's really ramps you've discovered, gently dig around the roots, pull one from the dirt and check a stem: it should narrow from the leaves, be wine-red in color and have a creamy white bulge at the root end. Pinch a leaf in half and take a sniff--if it smells distinctly like garlic, you've got the real thing.
Ramps sprout in damp forested areas from Tennessee to Canada between April and June, but are best-loved in the Appalachian hill country, where this native and very prolific spring specialty is celebrated at church suppers and community festivals.
All the parts of the plant are edible, and they taste like they smell: like garlic. Their lusty flavor belies the plant's delicacy. To store ramps, place them in damp paper towels inside plastic bags; they'll stay fresh for several days. Lightly cooked or chopped raw ramps can be folded into egg dishes, soft polenta or hot mashed potatoes. Like domesticated garlic, ramps sweeten considerably when cooked. Tuck some inside a grilled cheese sandwich, top a burger with them, and use them to season spaghetti sauce or sauteed mushrooms.
..check with the appropriate authority before setting out. Foraging restrictions vary on public lands, and on private property you must get the ownerís permission. Reference a reputable field guide book, preferably one thatís specific to your region, or apprentice with an experienced hunter. Never eat a wild plant you canít positively identify. And please, donít get greedy: pick only a portion of what you find, to allow the plants to replenish themselves for next year.
In case you can't find enough in the wild or at the market, we've provided substitute ingredients for each recipe.
When you get home, take care to thoroughly clean your cache. Tender greens, especially, should be rinsed well under or in cold water and often require several washings. Dry them in cotton or paper towels and keep them chilled in plastic bags. This will help prevent loss of moisture and vitamins, but not for long--most wild greens decline after a couple of days.
If youíre new to a particular wild edible, make your first serving a small one. As with any food, allergic reactions are rare, but possible.
Finally, whether you gather, grow or purchase the wild foods of spring, get them now, for all too soon, theyíll be gone.